Member Spotlight: Joseph K. Miner

June 15, 2017 | ASTHO Staff

Joseph K. Miner, MD, is executive director of the Utah Department of Health. As director, Miner oversees nearly 1,000 health department employees with the goal of helping Utah become the healthiest state in the nation. While the agency’s programs are diverse, ranging from anti-tobacco efforts to assisting children with special healthcare needs, to licensing day care facilities and ensuring the state's most vulnerable residents have access to healthcare, the mission of the department is consistent: help Utahns enjoy the best health possible.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?

Utah’s governor, Gary Herbert, was a county commissioner for 14 years during my 32 years as executive director of the Utah County Health Department. We knew each other well. So when the executive director of the Utah Department of Health position opened up, he called me and asked me to take the position. I admire his leadership style and wanted to work in his administration.

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?

My experience in flight medicine training in the U.S. Air Force under Col. Royce Moser, MD, interested me in a career in preventive medicine.

What is your morning ritual?

Nothing too interesting. I just get up early so that I can have a good breakfast and not miss the commuter train to the office.

What do you do to stay healthy?

I mostly try to stay focused on psychological health. So I try not to take myself too seriously and I enjoy and appreciate all of the people with whom I work and associate. I trust them to do a good job.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

I love national parks. The closest ones to us are Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Southern Utah also has five great national parks. Then, of course, there is Hawaii, which we have visited several times.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I enjoy landscape gardening beautiful trees, shrubs, and flowers. Also, I enjoy travel, particularly road trips to enjoy countryside views, and I follow most amateur and professional sports.

What is your state doing to address the opioid epidemic, and how are you supporting the 2017 ASTHO President’s Challenge?

We are doing in-depth data collection and analysis on opioid deaths and prescribers' information through our Controlled Substances Database. We are also doing statewide alerts and educating prescribers and the public, as well as arranging for first responders, public safety personnel, and associates of high-risk opiate users to have access to emergency naloxone. Federal grants and the Utah legislature have funded these activities.

How did your career in public health begin?

After graduating from the University of Utah School of Medicine in 1974, I went on active duty in the U.S. Air Force for an internship in internal medicine at Keesler Air Force Medical Center in Biloxi, MS. I then completed the U.S. Air Force primary course in Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base, in Texas. From there I was assigned to work as the flight surgeon at Whiteman Air Force Base, in Missouri. This was a small base where I was also the public health officer and director of occupational medicine, as well as the director of aerospace medicine. These experiences led me to accept and complete a residency in preventive medicine and public health at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

During my residency, I was acting director of a two-county local health department north of Salt Lake City. Upon completing the residency, I accepted a position with the U.S. Steel Corporation as director of occupational medicine at their Geneva Works Steel Mill in Utah County. After four years there, I was appointed executive director of the Utah County Health Department, where I stayed for 32 years.

How has public health changed during your time in the field?

Technology has dramatically changed how we collect and analyze public health data, as well as how we rapidly identify disease outbreaks and communicate this to the public. Technology has also led to a much better acknowledgement of the social determinants of health.

What do you love most about the public health work you do?

I love collaborating with people from so many different public and private agencies that are all in the business of making life better and healthier for people.

What do you find most challenging about public health?

The most challenging thing is convincing—or reminding—policymakers and the public that public health measures really do work. It is so easy for people to forget (or never know) the history of what life (and death) was like before immunizations, injury prevention, food and water sanitation, etc. Because many of these disease and issues aren’t seen now, it can be difficult to appreciate how they are being prevented by important public health measures.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career in public health?

For better or for worse, everyone is involved in public health. The actions, behaviors, and work of each of us, as individuals or institutions, affects not only ourselves and our family members, but everyone around us as well. All facets of our society—not just the government—participate in public health. This includes our education, employment, housing, transportation, economic development, agriculture, healthcare, public safety, and even family and neighborhood dynamics and interactions.